Peter Speake-Marin is the consummate watchmaker. A quietly exacting man, the 43-year-old Brit makes $100,000 bespoke watches in his shop near Geneva using mechanical movements perfected a century ago. The waiting list for a Speake-Marin special is a year long; the timepieces are lauded the world over as pinnacles of horological craftsmanship. But the man himself doesn't own a single watch.
"I'm not interested in owning a piece," Speake-Marin says. "It's not the watch; it's the choice to be able to actually live this life."
"This life" places him far outside the watchmaking mainstream, in a category--independent artisans--all but extinct though now surprisingly vital. A number of master watchmakers are leaving prestigious brands and going into business for themselves. Their goal: to return watchmaking to its roots. Call it the rise of the independents.
Still, ask five enthusiasts what the term "independent watchmaker" means and you'll get five different answers. In general, it refers to men (yes, almost always men) who labor in creative and financial independence from name-brand watch companies owned by LVMH, Richemont and Swatch (think Piaget, Cartier, Vacheron Constantin). There are some exceptions. For example: Richemont owns 20% of Greubel Forsey, which is considered independent, and Audemars Piguet owns a minority stake in Richard Mille. Audemars, Parmigiani, Rolex and Patek Philippe are technically independent, too, but they are different beasts than Speake-Marin and his cohorts.
Some indie shops produce as few as 20 watches per year; most are run by those who refined their skills in Switzerland...